Joseph Vaz: Not Anybody, But the Greatest

It’s remarkable that more people have not heard of Joseph Vaz, he is considered the greatest saint missionary in Asia since Francis Xavier. And his missionary journey’s are epic boy’s stories, better than anything Ian Fleming can conjure up for his James Bond character. His Feast day 16th January.

Some of these would not be out of place in the Old Testament, such as parting the waters of a river in flood during the monsoon rains, calming wild elephants, and going head to head with devil worshiping magicians in the Kandyan kingdom of Ceylon to pray for rain during a bad drought. The latter event was recorded by buddhist monks, in the historical chronicle of ‘Culavamsa’ - a document that spans from the 4th century to 1815 detailing significant events in the lives of the monarchs of the island.

St Joseph Vaz passing by guards:
Joseph Vaz was born on the 21st of April in 1651 in the Portuguese colony of Goa in India. The house of his grandparents, where he was born in the little hamlet of Benaulim still exist, as does the font at which he was baptised. His devotion to the Blessed Sacrament saw him praying all night in the local church even as a boy of seven, and it matured into a vocation to the priesthood. He felt called to the life of a religious, and he formed an Oratory after the style of St Philip Neri, in the town of Sancoale, as native priests were barred from entering religious orders in Asia at that time. The piety of the Vaz family is reflected in the fact that many of his nephews followed him to the Oratory he founded.

Taming a wild elephant:
News reached Father Joseph of Catholics in the neighbouring island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) being systematically persecuted by the Calvinist Dutch, who had taken over some of the Portuguese colonies in Asia. After a century of peaceful evangelisation by the Portuguese, led by St Francis Xavier, the Catholics in the island of Ceylon were deprived of the sacraments with brutal efficiency by the Dutch, as it was easy to arrest and expel any priest remaining in the island, as they were all white Europeans. The Portuguese authorities and the Bishop of Cochin, in whose territory the island lay, were helpless to do anything.

Father Vaz entered into this situation, after many obstacles placed by the Propaganda Fidei under the Holy See and the local jurisdiction of the Portuguese padroado were overcome, he finally attempted to smuggle himself into the island disguised as a common labourer. The boat in which he travelled was wrecked off the northern coast of Ceylon, but he made landfall in May or June of 1687 in Mannar with none of the belongings he set out with, to begin his mission.

Parting the waters of Deduru Oya river in flood:
Playing a game of cat and mouse with the Dutch authorities, who had been alerted of the presence of a priest in the country, Father Vaz made contact with Catholics and celebrated the Sacraments with them. Regularising marriages, baptising, confirming and celebrating Mass, where an entire generation of Catholics had not received Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.

When on one occasion a treacherous informer had betrayed the whereabouts of Father Vaz to the Dutch persuviants, and the house where he was celebrating Mass was surrounded, Father Vaz calmly walked out of the front door, fully vested and carrying the Chalice, in full view but unnoticed by them.

His picture with a second class relic of a garment at the London Oratory:
Father Vaz often took refuge in the territory unoccupied by the Dutch, in the mountainous interior of the island, but was arrested as a Dutch spy and presented to the court of King Vimaladharmasoriya II in the city of Kandy. He spent almost all of the year 1692 being incarcerated within the King’s palace, a similar experience is described by the Englishman Robert Knox in his book ‘A historical relation to the island of Ceylon and it’s peoples’. Knox spent twenty years in captivity before his dramatic escape.

But Father Vaz won the confidence of his captors who were impressed by his piety and his wise counsel. And when a severe drought threatened a calamitous failure of crops and the independence of the Kandyan kingdom, Father Joseph Vaz offered to pray for rain in exchange for his freedom. A great stage was erected before the palace, and the King’s own magicians and ‘priests’ took up the challenge and performed their own rain making ceremonies to no avail, before Father Vaz was brought on to the stage. The Culavamsa chronicles that ‘as soon as he began praying, thunder and lightning shook the air and a torrential downpour engulfed everything, except the spot where Father Joseph Vaz knelt’. Greatly impressed by this miracle, and of his piety, the King allowed Father Vaz to build a Church within the confines of the City of Kandy, a hitherto unknown occurrence for a non Buddhist, or Hindu place of worship.

The founding of an Oratory in Kandy was also in keeping with the custom of having an Oratory in a city, as the desire of Holy Father St Philip who founded the first Oratory in Rome, upon which all other foundations are modelled. With time, the King allowed Father Vas unfettered access to any part of his Kingdom, and the right to come and go as he pleased. And he was soon joined by Father Jacome Goncalves another Oratorian from Goa, and a succession of others who established a firm missionary presence in Kandy with frequent forays to the northern Kingdom of Jaffna, and also to areas in the coast dominated by the Dutch.

After a pox epidemic in Kandy in 1697, where every able bodied person including the King’s court abandoned the city, leaving Father Vaz and the Oratorians alone to minister to the sick and the dying, King Vimaladharmasuriya II held him in such high esteem, that when ever the King’s entourage passed Father Vaz’s house, the King dismounted his elephant and walked barefoot. Although the King himself didn’t convert to the faith, one of his nephews converted, travelled to Portugal, and became a Catholic Priest.

The miracle of the rain in Kandy:
After many years of heroic missionary work, where an identity of Catholic culture was reintroduced to Ceylon and a flourishing Catholic literature in both Singhaleese and Tamil was begun, Father Vaz went to his well earned eternal rest on the 16th of January 1711.

His first biographer Father Sebastian do Rego, a nephew of the Saint, and a priest of the Goan Oratory wrote in 1730 that the strength for his intense missionary exertions was found in the profound silence and the life of prayer Joseph Vaz led. Combined with zeal for the sacred liturgy and sacraments. Although he shunned any worldly honour and recognition, he was appointed the Vicar Apostolic of Ceylon by the Sacred Congregation of the Propaganda Fidei, but he avoided going to Portuguese territory in India to be ordained a bishop.

Sadly, the Oratory founded by Father Vaz in Ceylon disintegrated with time, as it was never fully instituted as an independent Oratory from Goa. And when the Goan Oratory collapsed in 1835 when all religious houses in Portuguese territory were seized for the state, the Oratory in Ceylon fell too. Nor are there any first class relics of the Saint, as no one knows where he was buried. But what he has left, is a vibrant Church in Sri Lanka, faithful and devout with a simple piety shaped from a naturally spiritual people. My family too, owe our Catholic faith to the works of Saint Joseph Vaz the Apostle of Ceylon
Robert B